... to recommend to a cook that was interested in owning and/or learning to sharpen their own knives, what would it be? Basically that first step for someone who was looking to really maintain their knives - not just hit on the steel or give to the knife-guy every month.
I thought it might be interesting to hear some thoughts on this.
For me it'd be a Hiromoto AS. It's not a knife that I'm in love with but I really feel it's taught me a lot of good lessons.
It's affordable in the sense that it's just slightly more than say a Shun or MAC. The handle, weight, and profile is a good transition moving from Western knives and techniques to Japanese ones. It's not reactive in the slightest but the steel behaves well on most stones and the edge retention is pretty good. A nice step up from most mid-range stainless.
It's also fairly asymmetric which teaches you a good lesson when it comes to sharpening and maintaining (or if you're a lefty like me, changing) blade geometry. It thickens fairly abruptly behind the edge once you start to remove some steel and so you are forced to learn how to thin a knife to get it to perform how you like. I've found that the cladding is fairly soft so it's not a chore to remove. It might have just been my incompetence but compared to the other knives that I was learning to sharpen on, the profile gave me more issues over time as far as accordion cuts (the heel height/belly?) and so it's forced me to be more mindful about maintaining a solid profile.
There are other more inexpensive options that I'd recommend to someone just trying to buy their first knife. But for someone who was really looking to get their feet wet when it came to owning and caring for nice knives, I think that would be my first pick.